Female Dicks: A History of Women Detectives Challenging the Patriarchy
Behind every fictional female detective is the story of a subversive woman infiltrating a male-dominated world of mystery, intrigue, and misogyny.
Illustration by Katherine Killeffer
Throughout history, fictional female detectives have served as a metaphor for society's relationship to women and work. Whether the female sleuth sneaks in through the back door (amateur investigators like Miss Marple) or directly tackles chauvinism in the workplace (Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect), she must contend with a male-dominated profession. She is a subversive figure even in her silliest, most sexist iteration (Charlie's Angels), infiltrating a male space while flouting a skeptical society.
"Dick" is a slang term for detective, signaling the phallocentrism of investigative work. Dicks protect us, dicks fight for us, and dicks figure things out. The female dick, then, is one of Western culture's most potent denials of socially-ascribed gender roles. She represents the power of the feminine.
In 1930, a teenage girl named Nancy Drew set out to solve her first mystery—and captured America's imagination in the process. The world had never seen a detective quite like her, and the massive success her character enjoyed rocked the male-dominated publishing industry. In 1934, Fortune magazine declared: Nancy is "a best seller. How she crashed a Valhalla that had been rigidly restricted to the male of her species is a mystery even to her publishers."
Who were her publishers? Interestingly, Nancy Drew was conceived by a man, Edward Stratemeyer. He was the founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a children's book packager that produced many popular characters. The success of his Hardy Boys series among girls inspired him to create a young female detective. Mildred Wirt Benson, the first woman to graduate from the University of Iowa with a master's degree in journalism, was asked to ghostwrite the Nancy Drew series. Stratemeyer gave Benson outlines that she would use to develop the first 30 books in the series, writing them under the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene. Benson was bored with "namby-pamby" female characters and infused Nancy with progressive feminist ideals.
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Nancy debuted in 1930, a year also marked by the emergence of another female detective: Miss Marple. If Nancy represents a subversion of a young woman's role in society, then Miss Marple is her septuagenarian counterpart. Miss Marple is an amateur detective, perpetually overlooked by law enforcement because she is an elderly spinster. But Marple plays this underestimation to her advantage—presenting herself as a "gossiping old lady" while secretly collecting valuable clues from unassuming suspects. As the writer Alice Bolin argued, "Miss Marple mysteries are ones in which female news and knowledge are vindicated, throwing a smiling side eye at mansplanations and male authorities."
Agatha Christie had Miss Marple using her wits to solve cases, but the world would soon be introduced to a kind of detective who used an entirely different resource: her sexuality.
Honey West, a Marilyn Monroe-like private investigator, first appeared in the 1957 novel This Girl for Hire. She later became the first female detective on television, with the 1965 premiere of Honey West. The character, essentially a female James Bond, is a gorgeous judo expert who owns a man-hating ocelot named Bruce Biteabit. Though the show casts Honey as a sexual object, it also subverts that characterization. Her sexuality is literally the source of her power: Her earrings double as tear gas grenades, her garter belt serves as a gas mask, and her lipstick is a two-way radio. Honey West was played by the actress Anne Francis, who identified her character as "the forerunner of ... the good aspects of female independence."
Once upon a time, there were three little girls who went to the police academy ... but I took them away from all that, and now they work for me.
Though the show did not last more than a season, its producer, Aaron Spelling, would bring sexualized female detectives back to television in 1976, this time with greater success: Charlie's Angels. "Once upon a time, there were three little girls who went to the police academy ... but I took them away from all that, and now they work for me," intoned the paternalistic voiceover during the show's opening credits. "My name is Charlie."
The series features a team of three female private investigators who often fight crime in bikinis or go undercover as sex workers. The feather-haired Angels are in many ways less feminist than their Spelling-spawned predecessor, Honey West. Whereas Honey West has her own title and her own detective agency, Charlie's Angels live in crop-topped servitude to their titular boss.
Charlie's Angels was a popular feminist punching bag of the era, and it gave birth to the term "jiggle TV," coined by rival networks to denounce the scantily clad female stars of ABC, on which the series aired. But while other networks took the moral high ground, ABC took the ratings: All that jiggled was gold. And despite the objectification of the three female leads, one couldn't deny that they were strong women who often battled "male chauvinists." As the critic Emily Nussbaum put it, the show was "a pleasurably cockeyed history lesson in '70s feminism." She wrote: "Equal parts misogyny and girl power, the show is ... feminist, it's anti-feminist, it's both."
As the 70s came to a close, so did ABC's reign over television audiences. In the 80s, women entered the workforce in increasing numbers, and managed to do so fully clothed. This shift in attitude toward women in the workplace was reflected by the CBS detective drama Cagney & Lacey. The detectives Christine Cagney (Sharon Gless) and Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly) fight crime right alongside their male counterparts in the New York Police Department, and the protagonists just happen to be women. Angel-esque bikinis are traded in for pantsuits, and winking misogyny for outright feminism. Hailed by Gloria Steinem as "the best show on TV," Cagney & Lacey broke ground with its 1982 debut. Elsewhere in 80s television, women were pitted against one another in the Aaron Spelling-choreographed queen-bitch knockdowns of Dynasty. But Cagney & Lacey represented a rarity for women on TV at the time: a positive depiction of female friendship.
CBS found success with Cagney & Lacey, and in 1984 the network chose another female investigator to anchor a primetime hit: Jessica Fletcher. Played with classic poise by Angela Lansbury, Fletcher is the amateur sleuth at the center of Murder, She Wrote. The widowed mystery writer was cut from a similar cloth to Miss Marple (who also found herself on TV in 1984, in a BBC adaptation starring Joan Hickson). Fletcher brings her signature brand of shoulder-padded justice to the fictional town of Cabot Cove, and male police officers resign themselves to Fletcher's meddling because she is always right. Fletcher's strengths subverted ageist and sexist expectations at the time: Her wisdom comes from years of experience, and her intelligence is enhanced by feminine empathy. She also donned an 80s power blouse (a fact that has made Lansbury a latter-day Instagram icon).
I don't think there has ever been a female hero like that.
In the 90s, the power blouse was out, and more grounded depictions of female detectives were in. One of the first characters to represent this shift was Clarice Starling, the FBI trainee played by Jodie Foster in the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs. At the start of the movie, Clarice is offered up to the imprisoned serial killer Hannibal Lecter by her FBI superiors as a piece of psycho-sexual bait, in hopes that she will persuade Hannibal to lead them to another killer. Clarice's male bosses never expect her to be anything more than a female pawn "to turn [Hannibal] on." But in the end, it is her feminine nature that allows her to connect with Hannibal in ways that no man could, and Clarice succeeds because she is a woman. "Clarice ... combats the villain with her emotionality, [her] intuition, her frailty and vulnerability," Foster said in a 1991 interview. "I don't think there has ever been a female hero like that."
That year, 1991, brought another female detective to the screen: Jane Tennison, played by Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. Like her predecessors Cagney and Lacey, Tennison battles sexism in a male-dominated police force. But her feminist fight is a less polished one; it takes a deeper emotional toll on the one-woman army fighting it. "I'd describe [Tennison] as extremely directed, ambitious, talented and very uncompromising," Mirren said in an interview. "Therefore she is deeply frustrated by her job, the way her sex is a barrier."
Tennison succeeds at overcoming this barrier, rising from junior detective to detective superintendent. But her intense devotion to her job has consequences in her personal life. She loses out on romance, has a series of unsuccessful affairs, and undergoes an abortion. In the end, she descends into alcoholism and is forced to retire. This complex portrait embraced the darker side of the battle for workplace equality: Sometimes women sacrifice, and feel the impact of that decision deeply.
The character paved the way for future female detectives, but these depictions were often watered down for American audiences. Throughout the '90s and the '00s, detectives like The Closer's Brenda Johnson, Law & Order's Olivia Benson, and the titular characters of Rizzoli & Isles inherited Tennison's strength but not her complexity.
It is fitting, then, that the next trend in complex female investigators was also born overseas, this time with the Swedish author Stieg Larsson's 2005 book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, is a brilliant hacker who uses her skills to help authorities solve mysteries; she is also a vigilante willing to commit crimes of her own to avenge sexual abuse in her past (i.e., assaulting her rope-bound rapist with a dildo and branding him a rapist with a tattoo). Salander is an antiheroine who works within her own moral code, driven by her experience as a woman and not dictated by law. The subsequent book and its sequels were global best sellers and received both Swedish and American film adaptations.
Jessica Jones, as portrayed by Krysten Ritter in the 2015 Netflix adaptation of the Marvel character, is similarly antiheroic. Jones is a private detective who deals with the psychological repercussions of the time she spent with an abusive man. She spends much of the series trying to maintain her freedom from that man, Kilgrave, a villain who once exercised supernatural control over her mind and body (an apt metaphor for sexual assault). The series addresses issues of rape, abortion, and abuse head on—something rare in the Marvel universe. Jones is the first female detective antihero to be created in America, signaling a cultural willingness to embrace a greater variety of complex female characters.
The history of fictional female detectives in popular, mainstream culture is very much lacking in LGBT women or women of color; though these narratives certainly existed and continue to appear, this lack of representation in major media outlets reflects a lived history for many women pushed out of male-dominated spaces even further by racism and prejudice. So where do we stand today, in terms of the cultural metaphor of the female detective in a male-dominated profession? It would seem that by 2016, we should have evolved to a place where women and men have achieved workplace equality. But narratives of the underestimated female are relevant now more than ever. The consistent lack of equality for women in the workplace is one of our nation's greatest unsolved mysteries. Here's hoping that this generation of women will be the ones to crack the case.
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